Title ERIC DOWNING - INTERVIEW Description
Mr Downing was just 20 when he set out to be part of what was to become one of the major deciding factors in allied victory. On the 5th June 1944 Mr Downing, who was part of the Tank Corp (22nd Dragoons), woke up to find that he was going to board the ship on the way to the D-Day invasion in Normandy
?Just before the invasion we were sent to Gosport outside Southampton. We had a few days of freedom and then everything stopped ? we weren?t allowed out. They waterproofed our tanks by putting cordite on them and on the back they put a great big funnel so the water couldn?t get into the engine. It was important that the tanks did not land in more than 7 foot of water. It took about a fortnight to do the waterproofing and everything. The tanks were in effect mine-sweepers, fitted with heavy chains and balls. A rotating drum made the balls flail the ground with a force of 300lbs, thus exploding any mines.
On the Friday before the landings we were escorted to Southampton Water. Our tank had to be covered because it was a secret weapon. We knew what we had to do but not when or where we would land.
On Monday when we awoke we were passing the Needles, on the Isle of Wight, so we knew it was the real thing then.?
However, terrible weather halted proceedings and D-Day was postponed for 24 hours, but Mr Downing and his regiment were left on the flat-bottomed ship in the rough waters, anxiously waiting for the day ahead:
?They passed around anti seasickness pills. The further we went, the rougher it became, and we all soon found out that the anti- seasickness pills didn?t work. I was so seasick that I think that if the Germans said, ?Come this way sonny?, I would have said, ?yes, ok?. The adrenaline kicked in once we landed, but before that I couldn?t think about anything else. The captain of the ship, a New Zealander, was sick. Everyone was sick.
Through the night we had to observe strict wireless silence and in the early hours, about 4 o? clock, all the wireless operators tuned in suddenly. Some time after this all the ships opened up. There were battleships, rocket ships, cruisers ? everything. We were given orders to take our place. I was thinking, please may we land in less than 7 feet of water. As it happens, we did land in shallow water. The commander gave an order and a lever was pressed and we moved forward. It was 7.45 am.
We began to flail immediately. We were only gone a few yards when there was a blinding flash and the turret filled with smoke. I thought that was the end of us but the commander had given orders to blow the cordite to remove the waterproofing on the tank as with it on the engine would have overheated?.
Mr Downing landed on the Normandy coast at Juno beach with the Canadian forces. There was a small village called Grave-sur-Mer just in land from the beach. The 22nd Dragoons were supposed to clear the way for the Winnipeg Rifles who would follow behind.
?The idea was that we flailed a safe lane and then moved aside so ordinary armoured vehicles could go through in our tracks.
We hit several mines. Every time you hit a mine you lost several links in the chain. If you hit enough mines you lost the chains and then of course if you hit a mine you blew up.
The tank commander saw a church in the distance and thought that there may be Germans in it, which we later found out there was. I was ordered to hit it, which I did and got several direct hits. As I waited to receive further orders I turned around to see that the tank commander, Sergeant Upson, was hit in the face by something, probably shrapnel and was bleeding heavily. I handed him a field dressing and he went to get medical help but the strap on his gaiter got stuck on the ring that held the turret in place. I undid his gaiter and he struggled off.?
Mr Downing did not see him for months afterwards, but thankfully he survived.
?We came to a steep ridge, the front end of the tank went up in the air and we came straight down on a mine. The track was shattered and we couldn?t move. We were stuck there under fire. So, there we were in a crippled tank, no commander just the wireless operator, the driver and me. At the tender age of 20 and a few days, I had never seen a dead person. But I certainly made up for it that day. Each time I looked out I saw a dead Canadian with a wireless set stuck to him. Antenna stuck out. There with his mouth wide open.
After a while things quietened down and I noticed the spare water tank had been hit and water was leaking out of it. I thought that rather than just letting it waste away I would have a quick wash. Then someone called out ?snipers? and I jumped back in the tank. If there was a record for doing this quickly I?m sure I would be the holder of it.?
Mr Downing then described his experiences in the evening. ?We made our way to the beach. What a sight of burning vehicles everywhere, the dead and wounded lying around, wrecked ships stranded on the beach. The darkness fell and the Luftwaffe, which we hadn?t seen all day, came down and bombed the beaches all night.
We found a cemetery and sheltered behind graves never realising that the safest place was probably in the tank?.
Being a highly religious man, Mr Downing always kept the bible with him. In fact he read it so much that he was nicknamed Bishop by his comrades: ?I certainly felt that God was watching over me. The regiment was known as the ?funnies?because no-one at the war office expected us to survive. No provision of food was made for us.?
Mr Downing did not get home until August the following year as after D-Day he was moved onto Belgium, Holland and Palestine. Yet, it is clear that the end of the war did not bring him jubilation. His sergeant was killed the day before the war ended, therefore leaving him in a mixed state of grief over the death of a comrade and the happiness that the war was over. He summed up his experiences on that day:
?D-Day has since been named the ?longest day?, it certainly was for me.?
Mr Downing returned to the town in Normandy only a few years ago for the D-Day 50+ ceremony. When visiting, he found himself re-acquainted with a man named Roland, who at the time of the attack was with his mother in the church which Mr Downing was ordered to hit. However, there were no bad feelings and Roland now sends Mr Downing Christmas cards every year.
Most coincidently, however, when returning again for the D-Day 60+ celebrations they met again. Mr Downing was given a photograph of a little girl when he took part in the landings in 1944 and he had later given this photo to Roland. Whilst at a ceremonial dinner, he asked Roland if he still had it. Roland said he had and went to fetch it from his car. When he asked around the room if this woman still lived in the town, the woman that had been acting as a host to Mr Downing and his daughter during their stay came forward. She could not understand why Mr Downing had a picture of her a small child, but was amazed to hear what had happened.
Interview by Zoe Farrell and Aaron Sparrow.
Keywords D-day, Normandy, Canadian, tanks, mines, Collection Overseas Battle Fronts Place Normandy Year 1944 Conflict World War Two File type html Record ID number 118
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